Welcome to the new reality of airport scans and pat-downs

Obama has been pushed to make security his new Job 1

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The Gazette, Sunday, January 10, 2010

Welcome to the new normal in flying, a choice between pat -downs and body scanners, or possibly both.

Flying from Montreal to Washington's Reagan National Airport last Tuesday, I was asked for my boarding pass at least 10 times, and subjected to three thorough pat-downs, one after U.S. Customs, one in the corridor at the entrance to the U.S. gates, and one inside the gate itself. Because the flight paths into Reagan take planes over the White House and the U.S. Capitol, there is an extra layer of screening at the gate.

The pat-down includes removing shoes at all checkpoints, and now features a foot massage inside the gate, the first in deference to the shoe bomber, and the second because of the underwear bomber. You could be hiding explosive chemicals in your socks. While one surveillance officer is checking your socks, another is checking your carry-on, again. The checkpoint in the corridor is an added layer of security, and included in the gloved teams checking your carry-on, your one allowable carry-on, are members of the Montreal police department, who are also present in the customs hall. It is hard to know who's in charge here - U.S. customs, the Canadian airport security authority, Montreal airport security officers, or the Montreal police.

The woman back at the Air Canada check-in counter wasn't kidding when she said, "wait till you get to security."

There's never been anything quite like it, not even after 9/11. Since then, the shoe bomber, the spray bomber, and now the underwear bomber have taken security to levels no one ever imagined.

For example, if you're not checking a bag, you need to check everything in your shaving kit before putting it in your carry-on. Cuticle scissors? I've had half a dozen seized. Shaving cream? Don't even think about it. Tooth paste? Un-huh.

Bottled water or bottles of anything? Nope. Though you're still allowed to stop at the Duty Free. How does that work?

Let's ask Barack Obama, who has been working on little else since the underwear bomber spoiled his Hawaiian vacation on Christmas Day.

"Ultimately, the buck stops with me," the U.S. president said on Thursday, in his fourth statement on the incident in the two weeks since it occurred.

It was, finally, a leadership moment, one that indicated he was not only taking charge, but accepting responsibility; one that showed that he was not only in command of his brief, but in command of the situation.

In the first days after a disaster was averted not by the system but by the brave actions of passengers, Obama was nowhere to be seen, except on the golf course, while chaos reigned at every North American and European airport. In his two statements from Hawaii, he looked anything but presidential, blaming "human and systemic failure." In his first statement from the White House after meeting advisers last Tuesday, he blamed the intelligence community not for a failure to collect intelligence, but a failure to connect it.

After all, the underwear bomber's father had gone to the U.S. embassy in Nigeria to warn the Americans about his son, who had been in Yemen. From another source, the Americans knew al-Qai'da was training a Nigerian in Yemen. He bought a one-way ticket to Detroit, and paid for it in cash. He checked no luggage. But he had a valid visa to travel to the U.S., even though the British had denied him one. Yet Farouk Abdulmutallab wasn't on a watch list, and no alarm bells went off.

So what is to be done? Obama offered a trenchant mission statement on Thursday. "We must do better in keeping dangerous people off airplanes," he declared, "while still facilitating air travel."

There are four operational issues. First, surveillance and technology at airports. And then, intelligence and international co-ordination with the United States. There might be privacy issues about body scanners, but Transport Canada has just ordered 44 of them. Human surveillance needs to become more sophisticated than shaking down grannies in wheel chairs and tots in strollers. The intelligence community needs to do a better job of connecting the dots. And America's friends, including Canada, will have to meet their enhanced standards of security for flying to the United States.

There are two countries for which security trumps everything - Israel, since its foundation, and the United States since 9/11.

Obama's crowded and ambitious agenda - from economic recovery and health care at home to Afghanistan and climate change abroad - has been completely eclipsed by renewed anxiety about the security of the American homeland. The coverage weight of this issue in the U.S. media has swamped everything else.

When he said the buck stopped with him, Obama wasn't just echoing Harry Truman, he was stepping up and saying this is Job 1.

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